Activists concerned with development in north downtown may have a new, albeit unlikely, ally. Photographers of Urban Portraits, Places and Youthfulness (members refer to themselves as PUPPYs), a group of avant guard commercial and portrait photographers, has filed a formal petition to stop all development in north downtown.
“The area that some have called a ‘dead zone’ is actually very much alive…for our business,” said the photographer known as “Alpha,” the founder of PUPPY.
The commercial group would like to see 18 square(ish) blocks including the I-37 underpass, and Union Pacific railroad designated as a Special Economic Zone (SEZ), claiming the area’s “gritty urban back drops” are in danger of disappearing at the hands of bike-riding Millennials and city cleaning crews.
“I’m not sure exactly what those bike-riding rich kids are doing…but I feel like somehow this is all their fault,” said Alpha.
PUPPY has identified at least 20 significant spaces, calling them Backdrops and Landscapes of Intense Grit, Havoc or Trash, or BLIGHTs.
The majority of the identified BLIGHTs are owned by developers and public entities, and PUPPY hopes to gain their cooperation in maintaining optimum levels of detritus and filth. They have connected with another, even more unlikely group opposing development in the area, Friends Against Nasty City Yuckiness (FANCY). The group says they are concerned that increased walkability between the Eastside and Downtown could allow dangerous cross-pollination.
While one would think that groups like FANCY would be in favor of the development trends, they claim to be taking a longer view.
“We’ve worked hard to keep the Eastside safely contained using the railroad tracks and the I-37 overpasses. If it’s suddenly safe and appealing to walk over into our downtown, who knows what sort could start showing up?” said a representative for FANCY, who lives in Olmos Park, but owns an abandoned warehouse in the proposed SEZ.
To call attention to the threatened areas, PUPPY organized an event they are calling a “snap in.” Its website describes it as a “guerrilla photography happening” in which they took hundreds of photos of models (mostly volunteers from FANCY) in front of the BLIGHTs.
The event took place on Austin Street where dozens were gathered wearing t-shirts bearing the group’s slogan, “PUPPYs love BLIGHTs!”
Increased law enforcement was notably absent from the gathering.
“It’s perfectly legal,” said an SAPD spokesperson, “people photograph down here all the time. Pretty normal day, really, except for those t-shirts, which are weird.”
Urban/industrial settings are in high demand for senior portraits, commercial photography, and wedding photography. The trend follows the recent urbanization movement, and has been lauded by Millennials as a welcome alternative to the marbled drop clothes and bluebonnets of their youth.
As the area develops into a bustling live-work-play center, PUPPY is afraid they will lose the rust and barbed wire they require to create the “raw but deeply cultured” effect their clients want.
“Not everyone wants to live close to the BLIGHTs, but lots of people want to be photographed in them or take photographs of them,” Alpha said.
One PUPPY explained that many high school seniors come to him wanting to capture a rebellious or artsy persona.
“Immediately I’m thinking of something with lots of graffiti,” he said, “And I know where to find it, fresh every day!”
Most of his business comes from students graduating from Alamo Heights High School. While their parents insist on at least one session at the McNay Art Museum, the students often have something more edgy in mind.
“I mean, it’s really hard to find that in Alamo Heights, and I don’t want to have to go, like, spray paint all over Bird Bakery or something. That would be hoakey,” said the former photojournalist.
A representative from the City Center Development and Operations Department (CCDO) met with PUPPY leaders, reminding them that places like the Hays Street Bridge, the Museum Reach, and the Pearl were all authentic urban spaces, and still very popular portrait venues.
The group claims that, while those spaces are nice, they’ve already been commercialized and sanitized too thoroughly for this particular genre of portrait.
“Without barbed wire, it just doesn’t speak,” said a fine art photographer who shoots portraits with PUPPY to pay his bills.
“We represent the next generation of portraiture,” Alpha said.
The proposed SEZ included the 18 square(ish) blocks east of Broadway to Cherry Streets, and south of Jones to McCullough/Nolan.
“It has to include the overpasses,” said one PUPPY. “The scale and scope allow for some really powerful images. But really it’s the smell that solidifies the commitment of the photographer-subject team. You have to want the photo really, really bad to hold your breath that long. ”
CCDO representatives offered a list of other urban zones, where developers seem less likely to continue bringing business and multi-family housing, the two biggest threats to the BLIGHTs.
“I just don’t feel safe in those other areas,” said a college student and PUPPY intern whose friends tell her she’s really good at photography. “The SEZ is the best of both worlds. It’s like an unpredictable urban environment where I feel totally safe, but I get a little buzz from the slight chance that I could be chased by a stray dog or find a used condom on the sidewalk.”
“We’ll leave those other areas to the documentarians,” said Alpha.
This unique mixture of danger and safety also helps the photographers capture genuine expressions from their subjects. One photographer told the story of a wedding shoot on the Union Pacific railroad tracks. Her subjects were caught up in the romance of their wedding shoot, and didn’t notice the oncoming train.
“It was just so real and so ‘now,’ I didn’t want to tell them they were about to be run over,” said the photographer. “I was getting some amazing shots as this freight train loomed behind them on their happy day!”
Complying with the Union Pacific guidelines to clear the track, the train conductor sounded his horn, terrifying the newlyweds. The groom panicked and allegedly tripped his bride in an attempt to get himself to safety. The quick-thinking bride rolled into an adjacent ditch, which was unfortunately filled with stagnant water. Her dress was ruined and she developed several boils, but she was alive. And happily married.
“The pictures were priceless!” said the photographer. “They’ll either be family treasures or exhibit ‘A’ in the couple’s divorce hearing.”
So far PUPPY has contributed thousands of images to the anti-development cause, raising public awareness and increasing demand for BLIGHT portraits, which can be scheduled through the PUPPY app for a $150 sitting fee and the agreement to purchase at least $700 in prints.
*A FANCY model poses for her PUPPY portrait during the “Snap-In” to save the BLIGHTs. Satirical photo of Hannah Jane Bull by Scott Ball.